Seasonal Affective Disorder

Does the change in season affect your mood?

For some the arrival of Autumn brings an unwelcome yearly challenge. Days become shorter, leaves change colour and for many the anticipation of cosy nights in by the fire are a welcome change.  But for others it is at this time that the happiness of summer begins to slip away and mood changes from upbeat to depressed, usually lasting throughout the Winter months. Although many of us will notice that we feel different during seasonal changes, for those who suffer with SAD it can really interfere with everyday life. If you have noticed this happening to you on a yearly basis, starting at the same time each year, then the chances are you may be suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD or otherwise known as the “Winter Blues”.

What does SAD feel like?

SAD does not just bring about a change in mood. There are other things that you may notice. Changes in energy levels can drop, affecting motivation and bring about a state of lethargy.  You may no longer feel like doing the things you love to do or seeing people you enjoy spending time with. You may notice yourself becoming withdrawn. You might find that getting out of bed becomes a real challenge and if you could, you would stay there all day. You have to literally will yourself out from under the duvet.  Even when you have got out of bed, you may still feel tired all day, and thoughts of climbing back under the sheets are never really far from your mind. Everyday tasks become a struggle and it can be hard to concentrate or focus. Sleep patterns can extend on either side of the day.

I remember a few years back that one client described the feeling of being raw; as if their emotions had become like an external skin that was constantly open to attack. Not only was this painful but they were aware that they found themselves feeling unable to manage conversation without becoming extremely irritable or even angry. It struck me that facing that level of difficulty everyday must have been a gigantic challenge and an extremely exhausting one.

Other changes you may notice are with appetite. You may find yourself drawn to different foods, particularly heavy, stodgy or sweet foods often loaded with carbs. They become so much harder to resist. Because we live in warm, centrally heated homes we don’t have the same opportunity to burn the extra calories off and we may find our waistlines expanding.

Why does it happen?

There are thought to be a few reasons why some people suffer with SAD and they are linked to the reducing daylight.

In our brain we have something called the hypothalamus. It is a bit like our brain’s chemistry set and it is in control of creating a lot of hormones that are released into our body by the pituitary gland. One of these hormones is called melatonin; otherwise known as the sleep hormone. We produce melatonin when daylight fades and its role is to get us ready for sleep.

Our brains are extremely sensitive to changes in daylight and our natural body clock or circadian rhythms are in fact synchronized by sunlight and the subsequent production of melatonin. During the day when there is more light, we produce less melatonin and when the light fades we produce more. So, in Autumn and Winter we produce more melatonin than in summer and so we can feel noticeably dopey.  It might also explain why countries that are nearer to the equator do not have as many cases of SAD.

Another reason why SAD develops in Autumn is because one of our five “happy” chemicals; serotonin; also becomes depleted. Serotonin is produced in the gut and in the brain and is triggered in part by sunlight. When there is less sunlight there is less serotonin and this imbalance can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety. Vitamin D also plays a part in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine; another of our bodies feel good chemicals, and it too decreases with a lack of UV radiation.

If you look at nature, many animals start to eat and store food in readiness for a Winter of hibernation. Although we are no longer a primitive species that would have hunkered down through the Winter months, we still have the same response to the change in seasons as our forebears. We now live in homes with lighting and heat and we go to work in the dark and often come back in the dark. This works against our natural physiology. For those that suffer with SAD they are perhaps more in tune with these natural responses to the changes in light.

What can I do?

One of the simpler things that you can do is to make sure that you maximise on the daylight available to you.  Sleep with the curtains open. Then as soon as the sun rises you will already be tuning in to the light.  Or when you get up make sure the first thing you do is open the curtains, but either way make sure you get light first thing in the morning. You can also try and sit by a window and get yourself out into the fresh air and have a kickabout in the leaves even when you don’t feel like it. It will help to top up those happy chemicals.

Getting some exercise is also important. Not only does it boost your immunity which can often take a hit when you feel depressed, but it will get the endorphins going; another happy chemical that can lift mood. Being in nature can be healing and it is good to enjoy some of things that Autumn can offer. It is spectacular time after all. I often feel a lot better when I take my fury friend with me. The silly grin on his face is enough to make anyone smile!

Try and increase your intake of Vitamin D. Try and eat food that is rich in it such as fish, chicken, duck, turkey, lamb, beef, pork, milk and even evaporated milk! If none of those appeal, then maybe consider using a supplement.

Make sure that you do connect with people. You might want to do the exact opposite and withdraw, but becoming insular only takes you on a downward spiral so try and keep connected. Besides which History has shown us that we always do better when we are linked in with our tribe. So why not arrange a coffee with a friend or if you are in lockdown why not do a virtual date?

Plan things to look forward to. There are a number of celebrations coming up with Halloween, Bonfire night and Christmas.  It maybe that all these things are going to be a different this year but that doesn’t mean that they need to be forgotten. Where I live, they have set up a drive through fireworks display. You can sit in your car and enjoy the view and maybe even put some tunes on to add to the atmosphere. If this sort of thing is not for you, you could plan a few trips or a weekend away. Whatever it might be do put something in your diary to get excited about, especially after Christmas when a lot of people can feel really flat and fed up.

Doing simple things that make you feel good can also be a help. One of my client’s likes to spend half an hour a day at the piano. Another has taken up creative writing. I have quite a few that like to wile away their time gardening. Whatever it is that floats your boat, keep doing it. Any activity however small can give a little boost of dopamine that will keep you afloat and inject a little motivation and happiness into the day. It can be hard to do at first because you won’t necessarily feel like doing much, but once you get going you will start to notice the benefits.

If you have tried all these things and you are still struggling, then you can seek out some professional help. There are lots of different types of therapy out there so do your research and find something that appeals to you. If you feel like giving solution focused hypnotherapy a try, then why not give me a call. You can get in touch via my website.